As the story goes, a political cartoon from the 1970s depicted two women discussing a movie they had seen. One says to the other that there are three things she looks for in a movie in order to qualify it as a “good” movie:
1. There have to be at least two women in it.
2. They have to talk to each other.
3. About something other than a man.
This continues to stand true. It is now a common litmus test for the issue of gender equality representation in film, commonly known as the Bechdel Test.
In general, ladies, we are taught to converse about many things, especially things which relate to men and having relationships with them. As a woman, I’ve noticed this more and more. I’ve kept track of how women relate to one another and the topics they choose to discuss around the lunch table, the water cooler, and the backyard, as it were.
To See A Difference, Do Differently
When I write, I think specifically about the world that I am building for my characters. Who do they interact with? Who do they relate to? What supporting characters populate and color their world? And, more importantly, who do they speak to and what do they speak about?
Recently, while working on writing a developing relationship between two co-lead female characters, I sat and made a list of what defines their friendship.
How long have they known each other? What bonding experiences did they have that drove them together? How do they each see the other? And, perhaps most importantly, what do they talk about?
I wrote out a list of conversation topics — things they had in common or disagree about and keep circling back around to — things that didn’t include men or relationships with them.
For example, one of the characters owns a successful family business, while the other is trying to learn how to launch her own business, so they are able to often talk about business strategies and nuances of their industry.
They are both interested in natural healing and non-chemical cures for ailments, so they discuss plants, herbs, flowers, and they mix ingredients together to create their own formulas, like amateur apothecaries.
They are both interested in the history of the area where they live, and so they are able to talk about and visit together, places of historical interest. Of course, they gossip about the latest news from the British Royals, and they gush over clothing and lipstick colors on each other as they hang out and try them on, but it’s important to me to make sure that their relationship is real, dimensional, and about more than just tragedies in their lives, men, and tragedies that involve men.
What might your characters bond over? Keep your ideas in a scrap heap until you’re building specific people in a specific world.
Focus on Female Characters' Interests
Every (significant) character should have hobbies and interests that make them a believable, well-rounded person. And this might be doubly-true for female characters; traditionally, they are not expected to be much more than props in literature, and although a century of work against that means that the greatest novels include rich, lively female characters, there is still work to be done to ensure that future generations of female readers see women they admire talking about things they’ve never considered before.
Ideas. Perspectives. Personality. If a young female reader is first introduced to the concept of astronauts through female characters, imagine how that might teach her that women are more than pretty — they are the next generation of leaders.
Consider: How do clothes affect your characters? What is important about what they wear?
Reverse Bechdel Test
Less commonly discussed is something I like to call the “reverse Bechdel” test. Just like you want to have a fleshed-out cast of female characters who bring their own knowledge and non-male-oriented agendas to the table, you also want to have well-rounded male characters who are more than women-hating or women-obsessed.
I encourage you to apply a Reverse Bechdel test to a scene where you have two or more men talking — if they’re talking about women, is it in gender stereotypical way? Push yourself to examine your male-to-male conversations and how they talk about the opposite gender.
Writing tip of the day: write single-gender conversations
As a writing exercise, write a scene where a group of male characters are sitting around a male-comfortable space (like a barber shop, bar, street corner, etc.), talking over a subject. In particular, don’t have any of them bring up women, at all. Nobody comments on a woman’s appearance, no one complains about their relationship, nobody talks about anything sexual.
It might be easy, it might be hard — depending on the story you’re telling. But make sure that at some point, if you want to show strong male characters who are not simple tools of their hormones, show an intelligent conversation between men about a topic that is non-women related.
Additionally, write a scene in which a group of men is discussing women, and make it as honest as you can. To prevent the men from becoming blurred together and indistinguishable, develop their personalities by the ways they talk about women. What women are they talking about? Why? And how?
If you can show the men’s true characters in four or fewer statements about women, the reader will truly feel like they know and understand those characters in any other scenes in which they appear.